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Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners use human rights law to occupy Bravus's Carmichael Coal Mine

Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners mark one year of occupying land next to Bravus's coal mine. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

Within a large stone Bora circle, a ceremonial fire has been burning non-stop for the past 365 days, attended continuously by a member of the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

This is Waddanagnuu – or The Talking – a cultural ceremony and camp less than two kilometres away from the Carmichael Coal Mine in central Queensland.

In what is believed to be a first, these Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners are using the Queensland Human Rights Act to occupy a mining lease held by Bravus, the Australian arm of Indian mining giant Adani.

And there appears to be little the mine can do about it.

Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners are celebrating one year of conducting a continuous cultural ceremony next to the Carmichael Coal Mine near Clermont. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

For Adrian Burragubba, a senior member of the group, it is the latest bid to access ancestral lands after a series of failed legal challenges to the mine left him bankrupt, and then the state extinguished their native title.

"For other Aboriginal people in Queensland, I want to extend to them that you stand up for your human rights and forget about legislation or these policies, forget about Native Title, forget about cultural heritage," Mr Burragubba said.

Section 28 of the Queensland Human Rights Act recognises the distinct cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Queensland and their special connection to land and sea.

Adrian Burragubba says he will continue using the Queensland Human Rights Act to exercise cultural rights. (ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

The lead-up to the occupation began in 2019, when Mr Burragubba's son, Coedie McAvoy, set up a camp on part of the mining lease, five kilometres from the mine.

The Queensland government extinguished the Wangan and Jagalingou's Native Title, and Bravus owned the land as freehold.

"Adani moved to the Supreme Court to have us trespassed and had a restraining order against us, so we couldn't go back there," Mr Burragubba said.

The group returned the following year, and again the police were called in to remove them.

All week, Wangan and Jagalingou people have taken part in ceremonies and traditional games to celebrate. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

The Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners took the matter up with the Queensland Human Rights Commission, and on June 17, 2021, the Queensland Police Service sent them a letter of regret.

"There's a mutual understanding now [with the mine], and the police aren't called in for anything," Mr Burragubba said.


Bravus says the camp has been organised and bankrolled by the anti-fossil fuel lobby.

"The unauthorised camp on our mining lease is a clear breach of the relevant Queensland mining legislation," a company spokesperson said.

Coedie McAvoy, Adrian Burragubba's son, has not left the campsite since August 26, 2021. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

"They don't like that the majority of traditional owners support our mine and work productively with us to manage cultural heritage on the mine site."

The spokesperson said many of the camp's occupants were not traditional owners and that the camp was being used for activities unrelated to cultural practices.

"The camp is the centrepiece of a public relations campaign that is dishonest, deceptive, and marginalises the wishes of the majority of traditional owners who voted 294 to 1 in favour of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement for the mine to protect their cultural heritage and bring lasting benefits to them and their families," the spokesperson said.

Legal pioneers

Associate Professor Shelley Marshall, the director of the Business and Human Rights Centre at RMIT University, describes the traditional owners as "legal pioneers".

"Adrian [Burragubba] is thought to be the first person who has invoked Section 28 of the Queensland Human Rights Act," Dr Marshall said.

It is thought this is the first time a First Nations people have used the Queensland Human Rights Act to access freehold land to practise cultural ceremony. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

She said it showed "incredible ingenuity" by the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples and was "quite a creative use of human rights law in Queensland".

When the state government extinguished the Wangan and Jagalingou's native title, all factions united under the Clermont-Belyando Native Title Claim.

They defended it in the federal court, where the claim was dismissed in March.

Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owner Patrick Malone has questioned why their group had to defend their Native Title in court, while other claimants have had theirs determined through consent.  (AAP: )

Traditional Owner Patrick Malone, who has been working alongside Bravus, said he was disappointed the Queensland government contested the case in federal court. 

In a written statement, a department spokesperson said Native Title determinations were a matter for the federal court.

Cultural heritage protection

The native title legal row has raised questions about the protection of cultural heritage.

Late last year, a significant stone tool-making site on Carmichael mine was destroyed, but not before hundreds of artefacts were removed. 

Bravus, the state government and Mr Malone say all protocols were followed.

The Carmichael coal mine is 160 kilometres north-west of Clermont and 320 kilometres west of Rockhampton in the Galilee Basin. (Supplied: Wangan and Jagalingou Custodians)

"The Elders who make up the Cultural Heritage Committee, and who unanimously approved and oversaw the works in question, are the First Nations authority on cultural heritage matters at the Carmichael mine," the Bravus spokesperson said.

"The Committee both approves cultural heritage clearance works and appoints one or more of the 70 Traditional Owners who perform and monitor these activities at the mine."

However, Mr Burragubba said only a small number of traditional owners signed off on the project rather than the entire group – and he wants to see this changed.

The Queensland government is currently reviewing its Cultural Heritage Act.

Federal response

Last October, a parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto's destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia recommended new laws to protect thousands of sacred sites across Australia.

Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. (Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation )

Among its eight recommendations was introducing overarching federal legislation to protect cultural heritage. 

Mr Burragubba and Dr Marshall believe this would be a good start.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said the federal government would table its response to the Juukan Report in parliament in due course.

"The Albanese government is committed to working in partnership with First Nations people to reform the Commonwealth heritage protection laws, including new stand-alone First Nations heritage protection legislation," the spokesperson said.

Bravus prepared its first coal shipment from the Carmichael Mine in central Queensland in December 2021 (Supplied: Facebook: Bravus Mining and Resources)

Dr Marshall said there were currently some protections for cultural heritage, but only where native title has been recognised, and this could be extinguished by the state.

"This is really the crux of the problem and again, pointing to the state of Queensland extinguishing native title in relation to Adani," Dr Marshall said, referring to the 2019 repeal.

"There's a real conflict of interest because of the revenue that state governments stand to gain from resource projects."

Asked whether the Queensland government would introduce human rights-based principles into the new cultural heritage protection reforms, the DSATSIP spokesperson said the government was considering feedback received during the consultation process.

In the meantime, Mr Burragubba will stand his ground at the camp on the Carmichael mine doorstep. 

"We're going to continue digging deeper and deeper and deeper into our human rights and what we're allowed to do in this country," he said.

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